Observations on Stephen Williams
vs Patricia Vidmar
Richard Crouch, New Year's
1. Background: A Local Dispute
3. Media Coverage
3.1. The ADF
3.2. PR as Journalism
4. Effects on School and
5. General Comments on
Religion in School
5.1. Freedom of speech
5.2. Diversity vs free
There are two aspects of this story. The first is a purely local dispute
about whether a fifth-grade teacher was overstepping the mark in expressing
personal views in the classroom, and whether the principal's response
to a number of parental complaints about this was balanced and appropriate.
The second aspect is the is the way that this local dispute was blown
up into a national issue only tangentially associated with the local dispute,
and the inaccurate reporting accompanying this.
1. Background: A Local Dispute
The dispute is currently the subject of a lawsuit. Cupertino Union School
District have been reserving comment on their side of the story until
the case comes to court, and their response to the verified complaint
is scheduled for January 14th. Without being in a position to pre-judge
the legal outcome, the lawsuit appears to have no justification and
The background events to the suit are relatively insignificant to anyone
outside the immediate school community. A number of parents complained
about teacher Stephen Williams inappropriately advocating his own religious
views in class. Towards the end of the school year the principal,
Patricia Vidmar, took the step of reviewing Williams' lesson plans
and supplemental handouts. Whether lessons were modified because of religious
content, age-inappropriateness, or for other reasons is not
currently known. Williams did not feel fairly treated, and took the matter
further. As far as one can determine, the grievance was not taken through
the standard channels (California Teachers Association, complaint
to the Board of Education), though exact information is not available
to the general public. Instead a verified complaint was lodged with
the Federal District Court, by-passing normal remedies.
How many complaints were made by parents? The full number has not been
disclosed, since it is a confidential personnel matter. However, at
least three parents (out of a class of 28) are known to have complained
to the principal over the course of last year. At least one of these was
a written complaint; others were made verbally either by phone or in
meetings. A number of other parents are known to have been deeply concerned,
but did not complain. It should be emphasized that 3 is a lower bound
on the number of complaints --- many people are now anxious to maintain
a low profile on this issue. There is also reason to believe that similar
concerns had been voiced in the previous school year. In addition to complaints,
some 30-40 parents of fourth-grade students filed explicit requests
for their children not to be placed in Stephen Williams' class this
Was Stephen Williams proselytizing? This is certainly what the complaints
alleged; whether the complaints were justified should now be something
for the courts to determine. However, a variety of parents from different
backgrounds, Christian and non-Christian, do believe that Williams had crossed
the bounds of appropriate advocacy. Some were also concerned that the amount
of time spent on religious topics was putting his class behind on
core subjects. (This is hard to judge though, as teachers are free
to vary the order in which they teach material throughout the year.)
Was Stephen Williams singled out because of his Christianity? This is unlikely.
He is far from being the only Christian teacher in the school, and
is not even the only professed Christian teaching fifth-grade history.
These other Christian teachers were not subject to similar complaints
or lesson reviews. A general pattern of discrimination against Christianity
also seems unlikely, given that teachers Stephen Williams and Donna
Axelson were given permission by the principal to start a Good News
Club on school premises. If Williams was singled out for anything, it was
for concerns about his teaching methods and not for his religious
Did principal Patricia Vidmar act inappropriately? Again, this should now
be for the courts to determine. But Vidmar is an experienced and conscientious
principal, with a reputation for fiercely protecting the interests
of her teachers. There is little reason to doubt that she was handling
this case with her usual care and fairness. And it bears repeating
that we do not know whether lessons were modified in response to parental
complaints and because of religious content, or for other pedagogical
In short, Williams had scant justification for filing a lawsuit.
Whether or not his case has any merit, he could have pursued other
local and internal remedies before filing a lawsuit and making this dispute
part of the national debate on religion in schools.
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The lawsuit is being handled for Stephen Williams by the Alliance Defense
Fund, an Arizona-based legal group whose mission is to defend "the
right to hear and speak the Truth through strategy, training, funding
and litigation" in response to "challenges to people of faith to live
and proclaim the Gospel." In 2003, the ADF received $16,474,818 from
donors, more than covering their $2,003,654 in General & Administrative
expenses. Since 2001, the ADF has been targeting public schools with
lawsuits. As Mike Johnson of the ADF told the Baptist Press News (12/20/04),
"The school ground is the battleground now in the culture war when
it comes to religious expression. Teachers are in the crosshairs."
The lawsuit alleges violation of Mr. Williams 1st and 14th Amendment rights,
and somewhat unusually names Patricia Vidmar and other members of
the Cupertino Union Board of Education individually as defendants. The lawsuit
is dissected in some detail in http://www.eriposte.com/philosophy/fundamentalism/stevenscreek.htm.
But in brief, even discounting the procedural fact that the plaintiff
did not pursue alternative remedies before filing, the suit appears
The suit makes four main charges.
1. The charge of violation of the equal protection clause of the Constitution
presupposes that Williams was singled out for special treatment because
of his Christianity. But as the lawsuit acknowledges, other fifth grade
teachers (which includes other Christian teachers) were not subject to review
of lesson plans and supplemental materials. Williams was not similarly
situated to other teachers, by virtue of parental complaints about
proselytization in class, so violation of equal protection cannot be
2. The charge of violation of Williams' right to free speech falls at a
number of points. This is discussed in more scholarly form in http://writ.news.findlaw.com/amar/20041224.html.
An additional observation is that for a K-12 teacher to exercise free
speech in the classroom, the students need to constitute a free audience
--- one that is free to stop listening or to disagree. Fifth grade
students are under an obligation to stay in class, pay attention, and
learn what they are told. They are a captive audience. The argument
is not whether teachers shed their constitutional rights to free speech
at the school gate (they do not) , but whether as the possibility of
free speech even arises in the classroom in the first case.
3. The charge of vagueness perhaps has some basis; it is hard to draw up
precise guidelines about what constitutes the boundary between appropriate
and inappropriate expression of personal views in the classroom. But
it is probably also unwise to try to precisely legislate inherently
vague pedagogical judgments.
4. The charge of violating the Establishment Clause of the Constitution
is subject to the same arguments as for freedom of speech when it comes
to restricting Williams' right to religious expression. The suit also
rather wildly complains that the defendants demonstrate impermissible
hostility to religion, despite the fact that the school adheres to
state and district mandates to teach of the religious context of America's
foundation, other teachers are free to use supplemental material with
religious references (as acknowledged in the lawsuit when arguing
for violation of equal protection), and the presence of such things
as the Good News Club on school premises.
The lawsuit also makes a number of statements that are just plain wrong,
unjustified, or silly. For example, (i) as well as including original
source documents as supplemental material, Williams also included
documents generally considered to be forgeries (e.g. George Washington's
prayer journals). (ii) It is alleged that in all supplemental material
was rejected because of religious references; for at least some, such
as extracts from the 18th Century Swiss jurisprudist Burlamaqui, it
is arguable that the material was just too complex for 10-11 year
old children. (iii) Similarly, the claim that a lesson on Easter was
banned because it is a Christian holiday disregards the fact that the
proposed lesson was also too complex to be age-appropriate. Curiously, the
suit notes that a lesson on Christmas was not banned, despite the fact
that it is also a Christian holiday. (iv) Williams claims that he knew
about one parental complaint about one handout; either this should
read one written complaint, or Williams has not been diligent in attending
to feedback from parents. (v) Williams is described as an "orthodox"
Christian, but he neither Greek, Russian nor Eastern Orthodox; rather,
Evangelical. (vi) And the allegation that the defendants excluded the
viewpoint that the nation has a Christian history is an absurdity.
The two key questions to the lawsuit are: (1) Were Williams' lesson plans
and supplemental material rejected solely for their religious content,
or did pedagogical matters such age-appropriateness enter into it?
(2) Is Williams correct in stating that he does not attempt to proselytize
students, or are parental complaints justified that he does, or at
least sails dangerously close. It is likely that the courts will never get
to consider these questions because the suit will be thrown out due
to Williams not first pursuing alternative remedies. Should they be
considered, it will in all probability be concluded that there were well-founded
concerns about age-appropriateness and/or religious advocacy, sufficient
to justify the Principal's intervention.
A final comment. The lawsuit is curious in the way it focuses attention
on Vidmar and other named members of the Board of Education. There
is a clear, and possibly vindictive, effort to downplay concerns expressed
by a number of parents and to make it appear that a single individual
has been acting unreasonably, unchecked by her superiors. This personalization
certainly facilitated the portrayal of Patricia Vidmar as a national hate
figure in media coverage associated with the lawsuit.
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3. Media Coverage
The lawsuit was filed on November 22nd. On November 23rd, two days before
Thanksgiving, and the day before school broke for Thanksgiving recess,
the ADF posted a press release on their web site. This press release formed
pretty much the sole point of reference for what appears to have been
an orchestrated media blitz in the following weeks. The timing of the
release just before a holiday, along with the decision of the school
district to decline comment on an impending lawsuit, gave open-field to extremely
one-sided and inaccurate coverage.
3.1. Contents of ADF Press
It is worth looking at the ADF
press release in detail, which is repeated in full below:
Primary Category: Religious Freedom
ADF Media Relations
Declaration of Independence Banned from Classroom
School district forbids teacher from providing handouts that reference
significant documents in U.S. history because they mention God
CUPERTINO, Calif. Attorneys with the Alliance Defense Fund filed suit yesterday
against the Cupertino Union School District for prohibiting a teacher
from providing supplemental handouts to students about American history
because the historical documents contain some references to God and
"Throwing aside all common sense, the district has chosen to censor men
such as George Washington and documents like the Declaration of Independence.
The district's actions conflict with American beliefs and are completely
unconstitutional," said ADF Senior Counsel Gary McCaleb." In addition,
they have wrongfully applied their policy to only one teacher, who
is a professed Christian."
Patricia Vidmar, the principal of Stevens Creek School, ordered the Christian
teacher -- but no others -- to submit all of his lesson plans and
supplemental handouts to her for review in advance. Documents the
teacher, Stephen Williams, submitted that Vidmar rejected include
excerpts from the Declaration of Independence, the diaries of George
Washington and John Adams, the writings of William Penn, and various
"Less than five percent of all of Mr. Williams' supplemental handouts distributed
throughout the school year contain references to God and Christianity,"
McCaleb said. "The district is simply attempting to cleanse all references
to the Christian religion from our nation's history, and they are
singling out Mr. Williams for discriminatory treatment. Their actions
are unacceptable under both California and federal law."
The California Education Code allows "references to religion or references
to or the use of religious literature...when such references or uses
do not constitute instruction in religious principles...and when such references
or uses are incidental to or illustrative of matters properly included
in the course of study."
Local counsel Terry Thompson filed the case, Stephen J. Williams v.
Cupertino Union School District, et al., in the U.S. District Court for
the Northern District of California, Oakland Division.
"ADF will continue to defend Christian teachers against discrimination
by public school officials and will oppose historical revisionism
that attempts to eradicate America's religious heritage," McCaleb
ADF is America's largest legal alliance defending religious liberty through
strategy, training, funding, and litigation.
- The headline. In Paul Pringle's
LA Times article of 12/26/04, McCaleb defends the headline as a fair
summary. Bearing in mind that all teachers are obliged to use a textbook
that prints the Declaration in full, it is impossible to find an interpretation
of the headline under which it is true. The natural interpretation,
that the Declaration is completely banned from the school, is contradicted
by the lawsuit and a latter paragraph in the press release stating
that other teachers are permitted to use supplemental handouts without
review. The less natural interpretation, that the Declaration was
banned from a single classroom, is falsified by the textbook.
- Suit was not filed against
the Cupertino Union School District, but against named individuals.
- That supplemental handouts
were prohibited because of references to God and religion is a central
part of the allegations made in the lawsuit. It is probably too much
to ask a press released on behalf of the plaintiff to present alternative
views favorable to the defendant, such as the possible age-inappropriateness
of some of the material. However, it is not unreasonable to ask journalists
to consider the possibility of such alternatives, and to look on such a press-release
as probably one-sided.
- "The district has chosen
to censor men such as George Washington and documents like the Declaration
of Independence": First, the Declaration was not censored/banned,
and the George Washington prayer journals are viewed by many as forgeries.
Second, either the district has chosen to censor such things or not.
Censorship applied to only one teacher is at worst censorship of that
individual, and not of material that other teachers are permitted
to distribute. The press release tries to have it both ways: that
the district is attempting a blanket policy of censorship, but is
discriminating in applying the policy to only one teacher.
- "ordered the Christian
teacher - but no others": the implication is that Williams is a Christian
and that Williams received special treatment, therefore Williams received
special treatment because he is a Christian. This non-sequitur is
promoted to a matter of principle in the lawsuit; in the press release
an open invitation is made to draw this faulty conclusion. Even if
Williams were the only Christian teacher in the school, the conclusion would
not necessarily follow. Given that he is not the only Christian teacher,
even in fifth grade, the conclusion is manifestly false.
- "The district is simply
attempting to cleanse all references to the Christian religion from
our nation's history, and they are singling out Mr. Williams for discriminatory
treatment": As with the claim of censorship, this is trying to have
it both ways. If there really were an attempt to cleanse all references,
then all teachers in the district would be subject to the same restrictions
as Williams. And if Williams is being singled out, then there is not
an attempt to cleanse all references. In any case, as the lawsuit
itself reveals, the textbook used in the school contains numerous
references to Christianity in the nation's history.
- "The California Education
Code allows...": Again, one cannot expect a press release on behalf
of the plaintiff to point this out, but there is an obvious converse
inference: if religious references were banned, perhaps it was because
they were illustrative of matters not properly included in the course
of study. And again, it is not unreasonable to ask journalists to contemplate
such a possibility.
Even without reference to any facts, the press release is a strangely contradictory
bundle of allegations. Armed with just two facts, that the Declaration
of Independence and other historical documents referring to God and
religion are included in the fifth-grade tetxbook, and that Williams
is not the only Christian teacher at the school, the press release
3.2. PR as Journalism?
The ADF press release was picked
up by Dan Whitcomb at Reuters on November 24th. An already false headline
was further exaggerated to read "Declaration of Independence banned
at Calif School." Other than mentioning that Vidmar could not
be contacted for comment and that Phyllis Vogel at CUSD declined to
comment, the entire content of the report was taken from either the
press release or quotes from ADF lawyer Terry Thompson, who introduced
a new theme of political correctness run wild. It appears that,
beyond two phone calls, no serious attempt at journalistic fact checking
was made to verify information coming from an obviously one-sided
and, as we have seen, self-contradictory source. Technically,
Reuters is largely in the clear, since with the exception of the headline
and the first line of the report ("A California teacher has been barred
by his school from giving students documents from American history
that refer to God -- including the Declaration of Independence.") everything
is either in quotation marks, or qualified by saying "Williams claims"
or "Williams asserts". Subsequent reporting in local papers across
the country, based around the Reuters article, was not always so careful
with these disclaimers. To pick just one example, more or less
at random, The Cavalier Daily News of December 9th (http://www.cavalierdaily.com/CVArticle.asp?ID=21782&pid=1233)
simply printed all assertions as facts.
For a week or so, the issue reverberated on the web, with the claim that
the Declaration of Independence had been banned from a California school
central to the outrage generated, any many web sites posting contact details
for Stevens Creek, and in the case of boortz.com/nuze/200411/11292004.html
accompanied by an invitation to "Do with them what you will."
As the volume of hate mail calls to the school (requiring additional
office support, and leading to the permanent presence of two Sheriff's
officers on the premises) indicates, such invitations did not go unanswered.
And white supremacist sites dissecting the name "Vidmar" for possible
Jewish origins do not invite further contemplation.
The New York Times (12/5/04: God, American History And a Fifth-Grade Class)
presented a broader spectrum of opinion from both sides. But strikingly
absent was any attempt to check facts. The article duly reported
the school district's denial that documents such as the Declaration of
Independence had been banned. That the school district were
telling the truth should have been easy for the NYT to verify ---
the Declaration is in the 5th grade textbook. And given that
this single, inflammatory falsehood was principally what had stirred
the whole story up into a national debate, it is not as though checking
this fact was some minor incidental consideration. But this
degree of journalistic responsibility was apparently beyond the NYT.
The San Francisco Chronicle (12/8/04 Battle over God in U.S. history class)
at least did not repeat the allegation that the Declaration had been
banned, though did nothing to point out that it was false, either.
The San Jose Mercury News (12/8/04 School-religion spotlight on Cupertino)
followed the NYT line of merely placing claim alongside counterclaim,
although an editorial on 12/9/04 did conclude by saying "One matter
is clear. The district has not banned the Declaration of Independence,
contrary to an assertion on the Web site of the legal coalition that
has come to Williams' defense."
It was not until the LA Times article (12/26/04 Fire, Brimstone over faith)
that a newspaper came out with a piece of reporting (as opposed to
op-ed) that made it clear that it was not just one claim against another,
but that the Declaration of Independence had indeed not been banned.
Remember, this was the initial press release headline, and was primarily
responsible for making lawsuit a national story. It took over a month
for the mainstream US press to state that this easily checkable assertion
Scott Herhold unwittingly summed up this whole sorry state of affairs when
he began a Mercury News op-ed piece (12/9/04, Give teacher benefit
of doubt amid uproar) by saying "If ever a public entity needed public
relations help, it's the Cupertino Union School District." Checking
facts be damned: if there aren't PR organizations putting out both
sides of a story, most journalists can apparently no longer be expected to
do their jobs.
Briefly, one has to mention the Hannity & Colmes show on Fox, taped
at De Anza College on December 8th. This is discussed at greater
length in http://www.eriposte.com/philosophy/fundamentalism/stevenscreek.htm,
but it's worth reiterating the extent to which the whole thing
was a put up job. As well as making no genuine attempt to find
informed spokespeople for Stevens Creek, members of the Stevens
Creek community were prevented from attending the show in even moderate
numbers. Even local journalists were barred, and the more enterprising
ones had to find their way in through unlocked and unattended doors.
The overwhelming majority of tickets to attend the show were pre-assigned
to people who flew into Cupertino from all over the country.
And finally, a word of thanks to the Cupertino Courier (http://www.cupertinocourier.com),
which has done a remarkably good job of covering the issue. Their reporting
pointed out the obvious facts about the distribution of the Declaration
of Independence before the LA Times (http://www.svcn.com/archives/cupertinocourier/20041222/cu-coverstrip.shtml),
but the Courier does not exactly enjoy the same wide readership.
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4. Effects on Stevens
Creek School and Surrounding Community
The television cameras across
the road from the school, the hate mail and calls, the police presence on
school premises, and so forth have been widely noted. But what of
longer term and more subtle effects on the school? The most obvious
question is: has this issue polarized the school into a pro-Williams and
a pro-Vidmar camp? This is a hard question to answer definitively ---
no one has conducted a school-wide opinion poll on attitudes, and nor should
they. But with this qualification in mind, the answer is no, the school
has not become polarized. If there is a view within the school that Patricia
Vidmar should no longer enjoy the confidence of the staff and parents, this
view has not been loudly voiced, if at all. Even amongst those who
feel that charges of proselytization against Stephen Williams are overblown,
support for and confidence in Patricia Vidmar has been expressed. As
best as one can tell, there is universal agreement in the school that the
media coverage of the case has been unnecessary, intrusive and inaccurate,
and that the picture painted of the school and the district bears no relation
to reality. The claim that the Declaration of Independence has been
banned has been dismissed by everyone, including Stephen Williams (who described
it as a "bit of a stretch" on the Hannity and Colmes show).
As for whether charges of proselytizing are regarded as being justified,
here it is best to note that there are views on both sides, with the majority
of parents in the school probably not having any opinion at all because
their children have never been taught by Mr. Williams. Anecdotally,
it seems a greater number of people feel that the charges have some justification
than not, or at least are more vocal in expressing this. But, of course,
the actual validity of any allegations has nothing to do with
this kind of popularity contest. What can uncontrovertibly be said
about people who have expressed concerns about religious advocacy is
that they cover a full cross-section of the Stevens Creek Community: Christian
and non-Christian, nth-generation American to recent immigrant, Conservative
and Liberal. If there is a bias in any direction, it is towards nth-generation
Americans who are active Christians.
As for the effect on the wider community, damage has undoubtedly been done.
This is perhaps best summed up by one case. Bruce Powell, a long term
Cupertino resident, asked at the Cupertino Union School Board meeting on
12/14/04 why there had been no proper attempt at mediation in the Williams
dispute, and why the school and district had adopted such an unjustifiable
position, one that no more than 50 out of the audience of 2000 at the
Hannity & Colmes taping appeared to support. On the basis of media
coverage given to the case, these were perfectly reasonable questions to
ask; the reported details, if true, would indeed be a disgrace to the district.
And one cannot hold Mr. Powell to blame for paying attention to what
is reported in the media. The sad truth is that Mr. Powell's reaction
is likely to be typical. Many people around Cupertino probably still
share the consternation he expressed, on the basis of the same false and
misleading reporting. This is bound to have consequences in the future.
CUSD is one of the lowest funded school districts per capita in California,
and a parcel tax to increase funding was narrowly defeated in the last election.
The chances for this much needed funding being approved by the local community
in the future can only have diminished.
The school district has liability insurance for lawsuits, but with
a deductible of $50,000. This means that up to $50,000 of taxpayers' money,
that should have been spent on childrens' education, is at risk of
being diverted to contest the ADF's frivolous and politically motivated suit.
People in Cupertino should not be mad at the school or the Board of
Education; but they should be as angry as hell at the costly behavior of
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5. Comments on the National
Debate about Religion in Schools
The local dispute concerning
Stephen Williams really does not bear the weight of national attention
placed on it. But a number of themes emerged in more general commentary
on related issues, and it is hard to resist adding to it.
5.1. Free Speech and Teachers
There is a devil's advocate
point of view that says that teachers do not shed their right to free speech
on entering the school gates, and that if they wish to speak about their
religious or political views to their students, they have a right to do
so. I don't think anyone seriously holds this position: the common
sense view says that teachers have an obligation to exercise great care and
discretion when expressing their own personal views, and that proselytization
is definitely unacceptable, whether it be for Christianity, Islam, Hinduism,
Atheism or the Republican or Democratic parties. But there are different
ways of justifying this obvious and common sense view.
Where religious rather than political proselytization is concerned, a
frequent justification appeals to the Establishment Clause enjoining separation
of church and state. Whatever the legal merits of this justification,
it just seems like the wrong way to go. For one thing, the argument
cannot easily be generalized to cover inappropriate politcal advocacy; yet
political and religious advocacy are surely just two manifestations of the
same problem. Moreover, it implies that in countries where there is
an established church, unfettered classroom proselytization for that
church is therefore acceptable. Speaking from my own experience of how these
affairs are managed in Britain, where Anglicanism is the established state
religion, unfettered proselytization is no more acceptable there than here.
The argument also places components of the Constitution in unnecessary
contradiction, and presumes that separation of church and state outweighs
free speech. This just looks like the wrong way round: both principles
are important and valuable, but if I had to put one over the other, the right
to free speech would win every time.
A far more plausible justification centers only on the right to free
speech. In accordance with legal precedent, it acknowledges that
teachers do not shed their constitutional rights on entering the school gate.
Point 1 is the following: Free speech requires a free audience, one
that can refuse to listen and is able to openly disagree. No free
audience, no possibility for free speech. Students in a K-12 classroom do
not constitute a free audience: they are under a general obligation to stay
in class, pay attention, and learn what they are told. Teachers do
not shed their right to free speech in the classroom; their opportunities
for genuinely exercising it are just extremely limited. Prohibiting
free advocacy of a teacher's personal views is thus, to the extent that
the students do not constitute a free audience, not a violation of the teacher's
right to free speech.
Point 2 starts by noting that even if prohibiting free advocacy does not
wrong the teacher, we have still not shown why such prohibitions are the
correct thing to do. For this, we need to look to the student's right
to free speech. For most parents of elementary school children more interested
in Yu-Gi-Oh than constitutional rights, this may seem like a bit of a stretch.
But that's actually part of the point, so bear with me. There are a number
of cases where common sense dictates that restrictions need to be placed
on the constitutional right to free speech. Children in a classroom
constitute one such case. We generally do not accord elementary school
children the right to dispute with their teacher such things as the truth
of the multiplication tables, correct spelling and grammar, and so forth.
The teacher is granted a right to quell such dissent, and without this
it is hard to see how learning could take place. But the areas in which
a teacher can quell dissent are not unlimited: a community decision is made --- through the school board, state
and federal laws --- to determine what comprises the classroom curriculum
and hence the subject matters on which a student's free speech is subject
to restriction. But when teacher step outside these agreed bounds,
they are liable to violate their students' right to free speech. In
short, proselytization is wrong in a classroom because it is a violation
of free speech.
What exactly constitutes proselytization, or more accurately, advocacy of
a teacher's personal views that violates free speech? This depends
very much on the age and circumstances of the students. For elementary
school children, such 10 and 11 year olds in fifth grade, we should
assume that students will not generally be able to distinguish between whether
a teacher is speaking personally or is presenting what has been agreed on
as part of the curriculum. Even if a teacher explicitly qualifies
personal pronouncements with "this is just what I think", if a personal opinion
of view is repeated often enough and strongly enough, children will construe
it to be part of the curriculum, and therefore not subject to debate. Put
more bluntly, from a student's perspective, they know who grades their work,
and disagreeing with the teacher is a way of getting bad grades. The
student's perspective holds, even if the teacher is scrupulously honest about
not marking students down because of religious or political disagreements.
Circumstances change, however, as students mature. At university
level, personal advocacy by professors is a less serious problem --- college
level students are permitted and encouraged to dispute their instructors.
Of course, instructors are still under an obligation not to let personal
views intrude on grading, and it is important that a variety of viewpoints
are made available to students
This argument is really just a long-winded way of arriving at the common
sense position: teachers have to be careful about what they say because students
are obliged to take everything teachers say seriously. The less mature
the students, the greater the care the teachers must exercise. This
of course leaves a murky area: not all expression of personal views constitutes
a violation of free speech. While most K-12 students probably have
a hard time believing that teachers have any kind of existence outside of
the school gates, teachers do need to be able to put something of themselves
into their work. Thus few reasonable parents would object to teachers
now and again voicing personal views (that they are Christian, that they
like football more than baseball, that they too detest broccoli, etc). This
becomes improper only when views are expressed in such a way that students
are likely to see them as backed by a teacher's sanction to quell dissent.
5.2. Diversity v Free Speech
Another common argument, certainly
in a city like Cupertino, is to say that proselytization in school is disrespectful
to the great cultural and religious diversity of children attending schools
in the district. This is true, but it is not a strong argument against
religious proselytization, and has little bearing on political proselytization.
Elevating it to the main or only argument against proselytization is
a grave mistake, for there is a strong counterargument that readily turns
The counterargument involves pitting two principles against on another:
respect for diversity and freedom of speech. The teacher is denied
free speech in order to respect diversity. For many, myself included,
free speech seems the stronger principle. The counterargument turns
nasty when an element of nativism is introduced into the mix, and there have
been plenty of examples of this in the current case. This runs broadly
along the lines of saying: the teacher is trying to talk freely about
mainstream American culture, which is (held to be) white and Christian; to
respect diversity (i.e. for reasons of political correctness) the teacher
is barred from doing this, but is forced to talk about other cultures, other
religions; therefore minority views and cultures are exercising undue influence
by means of political correctness, compromising free speech, and undermining
American culture. Unfortunately, the diversity argument plays straight
into the hands of the poisoned form of this counterargument.
This is not to deny that respecting diversity is a good thing; it is. And
respecting, or at least listening to, diverse views is an important component
of a free and informed citizenry. But it is not a bulwark against indoctrination.
In keeping proselytization out of schools, one is on firmer ground
when arguing just from freedom of speech.
5.3. Consequences of
Prayer in School
I was educated in Britain, where
there is no official separation of church and state. As such, prayer
in school is not a "hot button" issue for me: I'm used to the idea, and find
it relatively inconsequential. Mary Holstege wrote an impassioned essay
about her experience of religion in British education, and it's ill-effects.
All I can say is that I don't think her experience was typical. The
standard pattern in British schools is (or was, some 20-30 years ago) to
have a 15 minute morning assembly where the entire school gets together,
listens to a bunch of announcements, sings a hymn or two and mumbles its
way through the Lord's Prayer. In addition, there is/was one lesson
a week on Religious Education / Religious Instruction. Assemblies were
large enough that if you didn't want to take them seriously, you could just
bury yourself in the crowd and either daydream or whisper to your neighbor.
And if they dragged on too long, this had the distinct advantage of
eating into the French or history lesson that was due to follow it. Religious
education lessons were never subject to test or exams, and were generally
regarded like assemblies as being time off from more unpleasant classes.
I happened to go to a school that was about 30% Jewish. Once a week,
the school would split into a Jewish and a Christian assembly. In the
Christian assembly the deputy head master, who was a Christadelphian and
therefore viewed the entire school population as irredeemably unelect, would
try his hand at sermonizing on a Biblical passage. These assemblies
dragged on longer than usual, but as it was his own French lessons that he
was shortening, no one much minded.
What were the consequences
of all this? First, religion was demarcated and compartmentalized in
school. Evangelical Christians, such as the school librarian, had a
forum where they were free to expound, but where students knew what was coming
and were able to ignore it if they wanted. The effect was very different
from the "madrassa" style education that Mary Holstege described, where religion
entered into nearly everything. The overall result was that religion
in school was, if anything, a fairly effective and painless inoculation against
religious practice. In this light, it is interesting to contrast the
high levels of religious belief and practice in a country like the United
States, where there is official separation of church and state, to the much
lower levels in Britain, where there is an established church. The
Establishment clause and the ban on prayer in schools is in all probability
good for religion.
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